Halfway through Ottawa’s 2024 plan to stop homelessness. Photo: CC, wikicommons, Jean-Luc Henry.
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Ottawa must do more to help chronically homeless families

Ottawa’s director of housing services announced the closure of one of two family homeless shelters in Ottawa for Dec. 15, and will force 14 families to move into transitional housing—just in time for Christmas. The City of Ottawa needs to invest in building more affordable housing, rather than shutting down shelters without alternatives.

This shutdown comes as Doug Ford announced the removal of rent control from new units. On top of that, Ottawa has a low vacancy rate and even lower options for affordable housing, which has led to a housing crisis for struggling families.

The only way to end chronic homelessness is to get people out of homeless shelters and into affordable housing. Homeless shelters are necessarily short term. They are not supposed to be ‘solutions’ for homelessness, but rather a place for homeless people to go to in critical times of need, and should act as a facilitator for transitions to more long-term solutions. Ottawa’s shelters typically place families in motel rooms for temporary housing.

Ottawa councillors initiated a plan in 2014 to end chronic homelessness in Ottawa by 2024. This is a commendable ambition, however, the plan seems to be nothing more than virtue signalling.

The plan calls for an increase in spending for housing and shelters and raised the city’s budget to $18 million a year with regards to homelessness. I come from a city where councillors bicker viciously over projects that cost thousands of dollars, so $18 million certainly sounds like a generous amount of money. However, since the plan was initiated, homelessness for single people has only fallen 5 per cent in Ottawa, and the number of chronically homeless families has tripled. This could mean that the money is being spent ineffectively, which is almost certainly the case. But it could also mean that $18 million is not nearly enough.

It’s only when you start diving into the actual figures of homelessness in Ottawa that the severity of the problem really starts to become clear—the first thing that comes to light is that $18 million is radically insufficient.

When a chronically homeless family is finally admitted into a shelter, they tend to stay in that shelter for an average of 262 days. That’s the average, meaning that some people stay in shelters for even longer.

In 2016, there were 87 families that were reported as chronically homeless, and that number almost tripled in a single year—by the end of 2017, there were 236 families dealing with chronic homelessness. This clearly shows that whatever the city is doing is clearly not nearly enough. The city is spending more on short-term options such as temporary housing, rather than building long-term affordable housing.

A part of the plan to eradicate chronic homelessness by 2024 included placing housing first, but the way the city has chosen to go about doing so is wrong. The city has housed 519 families as part of its housing first initiative but misrepresented the success rate according to the University of Ottawa Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD). The city boasts that 85% of people are still housed 6 months later, but the IFSD found the actual percentage to be far lower at 66%. Rather than addressing the numbers and figuring out how to make affordable housing work long-term, the city decided to lump in supported housing in order to boost their success rate.

In February, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments announced they would be building 675 affordable housing units in the city. In May, the demolition of Heron Gate was announced, a lower-income community that provided housing to over 400 residents.

This incredible dependency upon shelters reveals that employment and housing initiatives need to be radically overhauled. It should not take the city just under a year to help a destitute family find employment and a place to live. Such an astonishing length of time spent in shelters really lays bare just how fundamentally homeless people are neglected.

The amount of money it would take to even approximate the city’s lofty goal of ending homelessness is staggering. But if I have to put on 3 layers of clothing just to get the mail without my fingers freezing off, there is no way I can swallow over 200 homeless families being left out in the cold.